Sunday, August 7, 2016

Landing On Earth

I did not jump out of a plane.

That was the story I intended to tell when I booked my skydiving excursion. But truth be told, when I was strapped to the professional skydiver, Steve, poised at the edge of the plane, he offered me one last reminder not to jump, not to slide, not to push off. To let him do everything.

The plane itself was rickety, old, and rusted out, with just enough cargo room for two pairs of tandem divers. In recounting the experience, I’ve always told friends that this was the most frightening part—taking flight in a vehicle that seemed so unsure of itself, like the engine might give out at any moment, long before we reached an altitude at which a parachute would do any good.

There was one other comparably terrifying part. The moment at which the first pair of divers tumbled from plane--theoretically a dive but more of a graceless fall from the doorway out into nothingness.

When Steve pushed us off from the plane, everything spun. I had imagined the dive as more of a flat fall--like belly flopping off a diving board. Instead, our bodies whirled like a discus. Nausea set in within seconds. I’ve never been good with these sudden turn-turn-turns.

When spinning stopped, I remembered to scream. This was what I remembered above everything else I had read in advance about skydiving. That screaming was not only reasonable and a socially acceptable expression of fear and excitement in the context of freefall, but actively practical as a way forcing air out of the lungs. Inhaling is easy when air pushes into your every cavity at terminal velocity. Exhaling requires effort.

Steve didn’t scream. He calmly reached forward, pressed a gloved hand to my forehead, and pushed my head back against his shoulder, my brow to his cheek.

We reached the critical point when it was appropriate for Steve to activate the parachute. We went from horizontal to vertical and in this part of the fall, it was easier to hear one another (in part because I had stopped screaming). At this point, he reminded me of the banana-shape I was supposed to have curled my body into during that initial fall—that I was supposed to have had my head back the whole time, and to have kicked back my legs to curl into his body—a more aerodynamic formation, besides which, when I instinctively curled my head forward, I made it harder for him to see where we were going.

I remember listening to this lecture as we started to spin again, less like a discus, more of a tandem pirouette in the sky. I felt vomit bubble to the back of my throat and choked it back down.

We landed on solid ground without incident. I remembered the correct position for my body this time, legs kicked out, and we hit the dirt of the field in a motion like sliding into home base.

Safe.

After it all, I returned to the skydiving office area where I had watched my safety video and had both learned and forgotten the banana position. Where I had waited for my name to be called. I waited again, longer this time, for my name to come up again, to collect a CD full of pictures from the experience. It dawned on me that there was every possibility these pictures may be more impactful than the experience itself. That my experience in the air had, in total, lasted less than twenty minutes. That it hadn’t fundamentally changed me, in the ways I had intellectually knew it probably wouldn’t, but had nonetheless hoped it might.

Two years later, I look back at that as a microcosm for so much of my life. I write about these moments in order to extend them. To remember reading the waiver that warned me skydiving had a particularly high risk of causing death, the moment when I asked Steve how many jumps he had made before (a reassuring “I don’t even know. Probably over a hundred by now”), the bruises that the harness left over my shoulders, the car sickness that compounded my nausea during the bumpy van ride over a private road from the field back to the office, and besides all of that, the realization after it was all over that I had just survived the longest fall from the greatest height of my life.

I write the words and everything before, and most particularly during the fall rushes to me. One hundred twenty miles per hour. Spinning. Dropping. The weight of the earth beneath my feet again.

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